Shopping Queen

2009-12-02 In the rich and egalitarian West both women and men contribute to a level of over-consumption which is unsustainable for the climate. But who is to take responsibility for stopping this? Have the women’s movement and feminism let down the environment?

Consumption has traditionally been regarded as a typically female pastime. The stereotypical shopper is a woman, either portrayed as a conscientious housewife providing her family with what it needs, or as an irresponsible, vain and conspicuous consumer. The link between women and consumption is based on the traditional division of labour between men and women, where men stand for production and work in the public sphere, while women stand for reproduction and consumption in the home. Men are breadwinners and women are spenders. But this does not hold true anymore. Women are increasingly acting as breadwinners and men take on the role as consumers. Furthermore, a large proportion of today’s households consist of a single person who does both the wage earning and the consumption.

Who, then, are Mr. and Mrs. Consumer? What are their consumption habits, and how sustainable are their lifestyles? In order to be able to make statements on how women and men may be overtaxing the environment in different ways through their respective consumption, a Swedish study mapped single households and their energy usage. The results showed that single men with no children spend 20 per cent more energy than women in the same situation do. Men have a higher energy intensity (mega joule per SEK) in their shopping compared to women – in all income groups. The difference is explained by single women and single men consuming energy in different ways. The most obvious example is transport, i.e. mainly car usage.

“40 per cent of the total energy usage of men is spent on energy intensive transports, while the corresponding proportion for women is only 25 per cent. Women, on the other hand, spend more energy on clothes and consumer goods, but these are not as energy intensive”, says Annika Carlsson-Kanyama, one of the researchers who conducted the study.

The more wealthy the consumer, the more harmful they are.

So, despite the stereotypical image of the female shopper, men and their consumption habits are actually the greatest harmers of the environment. However, the same study also shows that energy consumption is directly related to income; the higher one’s income the higher is also one’s energy usage. That is: the richer, the more harmful for the environment. And this pertains to both women and men.

The fact that the rich countries are responsible for most of the world’s environmental destruction as compared to the poorer parts of the world has been proved. Researchers have also noted that women leave smaller ecological footprints than men, both in rich and poor countries. This is explained by the traditional division of labour between the genders and by women having access to fewer resources; they simply do not have the opportunity to maintain a lifestyle and consumption pattern similar to men. The traditional woman’s role does not allow for many practices that would burden the environment.

But with the traditional division of labour changing and women’s independence and income increasing, they adapt an (almost) equally unsustainable consumption and lifestyle pattern as men. A deeper ecological footstep seems to be a consequence of gender equality for women.

Empowerment through consumption

This is so because the feminist movement has not succeeded in challenging the economic systems and seriously questioning consumerist culture, says Professor Kate Soper, who spoke at the conference Gender, Climate and Sustainability in Copenhagen in March 2009. Although movements for gender and sexual emancipation have removed social oppressions, Soper thinks they have done little to challenge the consumerist model of the ‘good life’.

”Freedom from domesticity and the patriarchal division of labour has not led – as many feminists had hoped it would – to greener and fairer ways of approaching human prosperity.”

Soper thinks that the movements in certain respects have even strengthened the hegemony of a consumerist lifestyle.

“Consumerist culture is closely associated with freedom and democracy, an association the market and the global economy is dependent upon. In the emancipation of women freedom has been linked with an increase in commodification and the expansion of the ‘shopping mall’ culture”, she says.

In the name of equality, women are given the right to consume, the right to be rich and the right to do as men do. Soper uses, for example, images from the TV series “Sex and the City” to illustrate how aspects of the feminist movement have become an issue of identity politics and self styling instead of solidarity.

“Movements for sexual emancipation have been co-opted by the market with third wave feminism and girl power. Emancipation and identity politics allow us to create and stage ourselves through consumption. We gain freedom and identity by consuming.”

Hard to criticize

She also criticizes the postmodern wave of feminism for celebrating shopping far too much instead of issuing warnings about its consequences.

“Feminist cultural theorists are often critical of the implied disparagement of women because of their association with shopping as opposed to ’higher’ forms of cultural activity. But the theorists tend on the whole to counter that disdain, not by challenging the actual connection between femininity and consumption, but by instead recasting women’s shopping practices as a form of empowerment”, says Soper.

For those who do not want to celebrate shopping and hedonism in the name of gender equality, it is hard to find a standpoint that is not also seen as conservative, puritan or essentialist. The impact of eco-feminists has not been all that great and the criticism they have voiced has been questioned as being based on the assumption that women, by nature, would possess a special concern for the environment, which is not only problematic in its essentialism, but which also gives men the signal that it is not that important for them to take responsibility for nature. Such ‘back-to-nature’ ethics, to use Soper’s expression, puts the responsibility for saving the world and the environment on the shoulders of women. And it is difficult to present such criticism without it being assumed that the most environmentally friendly solution would be for women to remain by the stove.

Moral panic by female culture

At the same time, the criticism of the burgeoning and hedonistic consumer culture, particularly among women, can be seen as a statement against objectionable luxuriousness and vanity. Extravagance and frivolity does not fit the profile of a Protestant and economically minded Scandinavian. Shopping is thus the form of consumption which seems to be easiest to criticize. And buying a car is not thought of as shopping, whilst buying clothes, shoes, makeup, decorative objects and other consumer goods – that is, the kind of consumption mainly done by women – is.

The shopping woman is characterised as the irresponsible, egocentric and vain consumer – as a modern Marie Antoinette. (c) 2007 Layout and Design Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

The shopping woman is characterised as the irresponsible, egocentric, vain and conspicuous consumer – as a modern Marie Antoinette. From an environmental viewpoint it is not, however, as condemnable to buy a handbag for 60,000 SEK – which started the so called bag debate in Swedish media in the spring of 2007 – as buying a car for the same amount of money is. It is, on the other hand, morally condemnable. And the immorality of women tends to be more upsetting than that of men.

Alternative hedonism

When it comes to solutions for the problems of both men’s and women’s over-consumption in our wealthy countries, Kate Soper wants to challenge the whole consumerist lifestyle and the financial logic it is based on. It is not only the environment that pays the price for our uncontrolled consumption, we do so we ourselves, too. Soper thinks that today’s western societies are characterised by an increasingly troubled relationship to unchecked consumption. She is discerning a growing dissatisfaction stemming from the unwanted by-products of consumerist lifestyle.

“There is media coverage every day of this new climate of disenchantment, with its concerns over the stress, pollution, ill-health, childhood obesity, car congestion, noise, excessive waste and the loss of the ‘art of living’”, says Soper.

The impacts of a consumerist lifestyle also include having to work more in order to maintain our standard of living and then not having the time to enjoy what we have consumed, which, in turn, makes time a commodity in short supply that we are also prepared to pay for.

This time, we are not to hope for a change at production level or through the mobilisation of the working classes. The solution lies with consumption and the consumer. Neo-liberal arguments, such as “the consumer’s free choice” or the opposite criticism of capitalism as “the consumer’s total subordination to the obligation to purchase” must, according to Soper, be discarded. Nobody is free from either the desire or the obligation to purchase. Instead, she points to a way based on the relatively autonomous circumspection, which is now appearing in the encounter with the negative impact of consumption on well-being. She is hoping for the “alternative hedonist” who not only feels threatened by environmental destruction, but also regards the consumerist lifestyle as unpleasurable and self-denying. The alternative hedonist seeks pleasures to be gained by pursuing a less work-driven and acquisitive way of life. The theory of an alternative hedonism is based on new forms of desire rather than fears of ecological disaster being likely to have most impact in any move towards more sustainable modes of consuming.

According to Soper, it is possible to use the promise of “more time” as a sales argument in order to switch development onto a new track. In that case perhaps the Nordic women’s movement’s old demand of a 6-hour working day could be dusted off again.

By: Jennie Westlun is adviser at NIKK.

This article has been published in NIKK magasin 2 2009 © NIKK

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